| Continued from above… better understanding of the long-range B-17 Flying Fortress. |
The B-17, dubbed the “Flying Fortress” as a result of her amount of defensive firepower. There are a handful of truly famous military aircraft that can be recognized by anyone who can tell one airplane from the other. One of the most significant of this elite group is the Boeing "B-17 Flying Fortress", a bomber that was built in the thousands and did much to help win the war against Hitler's Germany. The backbones of the American strategic bombing campaign in Europe, the B-17 became a symbol of US airpower. B-17s served in all theaters of the war and were renowned for their ruggedness and crew survivability.
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress: the first mass-produced , four-engine heavy bomber
The B-17 was designed in 1934 and the first prototype flew on 28 July 1935. Only a few were produced before the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, but production quickly ramped up thereafter.
The first use of the B-17 was against Wilhelmshaven on 8 July 1941. The B-17 not only pounded enemy strategic targets, but also carried out the destruction of enemy fighter aircraft. Massed formations of B-17s downed hundreds of the fighters sent to oppose them, causing the loss of enemy planes and irreplaceable pilots.
Photo left: B-17 bomber passing over the smoking ruins of the Focke-Wulf aircraft factory, destroyed during a daylight air raid attack.
Location: Marienburg, Germany - October 09, 1943
Officially the B-17 was listed on the Air Force procurement tables as Strategic bombardment
a "heavy" bombardment airplane; its mission:
accomplished with precision during daylight hours over long distances. Stated in another way, the Flying Fortress was a long-range heavy bomber whose function in time of war was daylight precision strategic bombardment. It is interesting to note how misunderstood and controversial a concept this is, even today. While it made good sense in wartime to fly over enemy cities and bomb them, that was not the purpose of strategic bombardment. Targets, and especially populated areas, were not bombed at random; there was careful selection of targets and the mission of the heavy bombers was to destroy the enemy's facilities for making war, to make it impossible for him to fight by denying him weapons, machines, and fuel.
This concept has been called by one German writer "wasteful, inhumane, and ineffective." The implication is that a war waged otherwise would be humane and not wasteful. The effectiveness of the heavy strategic bombardment program in Europe was attested to in the death of the Luftwaffe which was destroyed in the air and on the ground and in the denial of fuel to the German war machine. No better exemplification of this may be suggested than the absence of air opposition to the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944.
The reputation of the B-17 as a rugged fighting machine was well-known in the Air Force, and I was reassured of this on many occasions by what I saw and heard. Once, when our group had been attacked by fighters, an Me 109 collided with a B-17, taking off most of the rudder and left stabilizer, as well as slashing several holes in the fuselage. It was almost unbelievable that the B-17 could keep flying, but it did, and managed to make a safe landing back at base.
Lt James Johnson, 100th BG, Thorpe Abbots, 1945
A complexity of systems were responsible for the flight efficiency of the B-17
Flight controls, of course, controlled the aircraft and would include the aileron, rudder, elevator, tabs and the wing flaps. The flight controls were manually operated except when Automatic Flight Control Equipment (AFCE) was in use.
Most systems were electrically actuated; the hydraulic system operated the cowl flaps on the engines, the wheel brakes and emergency brakes.
The communications system on the B-17 was extremely complicated for not only were the members of the crew in communication with each other, but the pilot was in touch with the formation and with the base. Transmission by voice and Morse code was possible as well as receiving.
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Vulnerable Flying Fortress
To call so legendary a giant as the Flying Fortress 'vulnerable' may sound ridiculous. However, this mighty bomber, the backbone of the US 8th Army Air Force effort against Germany, was in its early days in the European theatre dismal proof that the bomber would not 'always get through'. On the contrary, the fighter aircraft was more likely to get through to the insufficiently protected bomber.
Photo left: 8Th Air Force Bomber Command
Inside a B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber - a radio operator & an engineer, clad in hi-altitude sheepskin clothing, goggles & oxygen masks, manning .50 cal. waist guns during bombing raid launched from England.
Location: United Kingdom - Date taken: September 1942
Photographer: Margaret Bourke-White
The B-17 crew members
The standard job of the men flying in the Boeing B-17 was to strike at military targets. They did this with courage and skill and their stories are little known. They hated their job, they knew fear, dread, and death. Whatever their varied backgrounds they shared a hatred of war and love for their plane. Many continue to recall the Flying Fortress as "the best plane of the war," capable of absorbing unbelievable punishment and still bring them home. In their darker moments they believed they could cling to this plane and it would bring them home. With wings punctured and ablaze, tail surfaces shredded, with chunks of its graceful body gouged out by cannon fire, flak, or mid-air collision, the B-17 brought them home. With an almost human will to live this great plane, shattered and torn beyond the limits of flight, carried them to safety and, for some, to life itself.
Watching one of these giant aircraft , like some living thing, clawing at the air in a vain attempt to remain aloft or at least in momentary level flight, was an awesome sight. The life and death struggle of so large a thing had its further poignance: there were ten men inside, some dead perhaps, some wounded, some not even so much as scratched, but at that moment all their lives had reached a crisis in that single plane, heaving and smoking in a freezing, hostile sky.
When flying light and below oxygen altitudes I preferred flying the B-24. The cockpit was more comfortable and had a better layout and was much quieter than a B-17's. You had a better view of the ground too. But for combat give me the Fortress. It was much easier to fly in formation at high altitude. As far as I am aware the rest of the crew also felt the B-17 was better in combat. The bombardier and navigator definitely had much better visibility out of the nose. The interior of the B-17 seemed cleaner. Perhaps it was because it had mostly electric systems whereas the B-24 had hydraulics which were always a plumber's nightmare.
Lt James Mynatt, 490th BG, Eye, 1944
This truth did not fully dawn on Command within the United States until 1943, when a period of relative immunity ended and battles between the nimble German fighters and heavily-loaded B17F Flying Fortresses, which flew at only 180 mph (290 kph), saw the latter losing primacy.
In September/October, B17 losses reached a prohibitive ten per cent per raid, and the need to increase protection became paramount. Apart from providing fighter escorts, which were not always able to make the there-and-back trip, the logical thing to do was to increase the bombers' own armament.
Photo right: Bomber Crew - Waist gunner wearing oxygen mask, goggles and high altitude sheep, skin clothing while manning his 50-cal. machine gun in the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress during bombing mission.
Date taken: March 1943 - Photographer: Margaret Bourke-White
The armament changed in the B-17
Not until the increase of the bombers' own armament was done did the Flying Fortress begin to earn its legendary reputation as the mightiest weapon the 8th Army Air Force possessed in its bombing offensive against Germany.
In its original prototype form, the B17's armament was almost pitiful. It consisted of only five machine guns - one .3 in (7.62 mm) in the nose and two .5 in (12.7 mm) on each fuselage side.
It was a very different matter of self-defense when production B17s acquired another eight .5 in (12.7 mm) guns in dorsal, ventral, waist and tail positions, and in the B17G of late 1943, thirteen .5 in (12.7 mm) Browning machine guns in the new chin turret, the cheek ventral, dorsal, waist and tail positions.
In addition, fourteen B17Fs were converted into huge flying gun-platforms, the YB40s, with extra power turret amidships, twin .5 in (12.7 mm) waist guns and remote-controlled twin-gun turret under the nose. In all, the YB40, which flew at the vulnerable edges of the Flying Fortress 'boxes' had sixteen .5 in (12.7 mm) guns, including two in the nose side-windows. It was also a flying arsenal: although it carried no bombs, its store of machine-gun ammunition was practically inexhaustible.
In my opinion the B-17 was the finest combat airplane the Air Force has ever had. It had one major disadvantage of course, in that it carried quite a small bomb load. Our normal loading was eight 500-lb bombs while operating from Australia; although there were bigger bombs in the theatre they were rarely used by my group. The B-17 was capable of carrying much more weight than we ever put into it: the problem was the configuration of the bay.
Lt John Minahan, 28th BS/19th BG, Mareeba, 1942
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The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress went on to earn a reputation for toughness and versatility
The remarkable bomber went through eight major changes during its production history. The final version was the B-17G, designed to eliminate a weakness in head-on attacks by adding a chin turret with two .50 cal. machine guns under its nose.
A delightful aircraft to fly, the Boeing B-17 won the hearts of its crews by its ability to absorb tremendous punishment and return home. The Fortress fought brilliantly in every theater of the war.
Keep'em Fly'in - Ground crews were the unsung heroes of the Boeing B-17 story. These men kept the big bombers flying, even in the face of inadequate replacement parts and punishing flight schedules.
Keep the memory of the brave crews who fought and won the war for freedom,
and the magnificent aircraft that allowed them to do it
Defining the valor of these men, and many will insist, of this plane, is a difficult task. After decades, it is possible for the men to look back upon the "work" they were engaged in during the Second World War with some detachment. Whatever the arguments of the adherents to the opposite view, it is unquestionable that the men in the heavy bombers B-17s as well as B-24s, and the B-29s made victory possible. They shortened the war. They paid a heavy price.
They were young when it all began and, if they lived, they were old when it ended...
there was no friendly earth to burrow into when the shooting became rough. And there were times when you could not even have the satisfaction of shooting back at those who were shooting at you. It all became a tragic demonstration of the laws of chance as you continued on through the puffs of black antiaircraft smoke. Would it be that the speed of your B-17 and its altitude would chance to be in the particular path which would intersect the path of a projectile which was shot up, more or less at random, and end it all there? Despite this they went out day after day, some came back, some cracked and some gave up. But most of them believed in what they were doing and completed the job.
A German poster designed to instruct Luftwaffe pilots how to attack the B-17, a Viermotoriges Kampfflugzeug ("four engine fighter airplane").
The shaded conic and hemispheric areas indicate cones of fire from the gun positions. Smaller diagrams in the upper left corner indicate (top) gas and oil tanks and (bottom) position of armor.
Cross-hatched circles show overlap of cones of fire from front and rear of plane.
German pilots were instructed that the most vulnerable area was the entire wing between the inboard engines (notation in bottom right of poster).
| Fact File: |
The 'Flying Fortress'
The Boeing B-17 began life as the Boeing 299 which first flew in July 1935. This latter aircraft, built in answer to a specification of the previous year, was a four-engine bomber of clean lines powered by 750 hp Pratt & Whitney Hornet engines. It had a nine-man crew and carried a 2,724-kg (6,000-lb) bomb load. The United States Army Air Corps tested 13 YB-17As in early 1937 and the last was modified for high altitude bombing with Wright Cyclone engines with turbo-superchargers fitted.
The first production model was the B-17B and by March 1940 39 had been delivered. The RAF received 20 B-17Cs for combat evaluation and subsequent American design incorporated their experience in the B-17D and E models. The B-17E (RAF Fortress II) entered production in 1942 and was fitted with armor, three new turrets - tail, ball and front upper - housing .50-inch machine-guns. Tailplane improvements gave greater stability as a bombing platform, and with the Norden bomb-sight the Fortress was to become a devastating weapon. Boeing, Vega and Douglas produced 512 of these examples and it formed the mainstay of the US Eighth Army Air Force flying high altitude strategic bombing missions from UK bases during and after 1942. The B17F had paddle-bladed propellers and a different nose; over 3,400 were built.
But the major production version was the B17G. To counter Luftwaffe attacks a chin turret and waist gun positions were fitted, increasing the crew to ten, and it was in the B-17G that the USAAF really carried the war to Germany. 8,680 were built, of which the RAF received some, and the thunder of their 1,200 hp Wright R-1820-97 supercharged Cyclone engines was heard almost daily over East Anglia until the war's end. Other uses to which the B-17 was put included recce, gunship and air-sea rescue tasks, and some were converted into BQ7 'Aphrodite' radio-controlled flying bombs with 5,340 kg (12,000 lb) of high explosive.
Span: 316 m (103' 9") Length: 22.8 m (74' 9"| Maximum speed: 462 kph (287 mph) Maximum take-off weight: 29.700 kg (65,600 Ibs) Ceiling: 10,670 m (35.000 ft) Range: 1,760km (1,100 miles) Armament: 13 x .5" Browning machine-guns.
By Debs McCaffrey